Even before a devastating helicopter crash killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others Sunday morning, the 62nd annual Grammy Awards were in turmoil. Just 10 days before the event, the Recording Academy President and CEO Deborah Dugan was placed on administrative leave “in light of concerns raised to the Recording Academy board of trustees, including a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.” In response, Dugan issued a 44-page complaint that raised serious doubts about the Grammys’ official selection process and an allegation of sexual assault against her predecessor Neil Portnow. It was hard to imagine how things could get worse, but they did.
Bryant’s tragic death weighed heavily on the ceremony. It was a clear factor starting with the night’s red carpet interviews in which celebrities meekly mentioned his very recent death. "This Kobe news has really thrown a wrench into the red carpet tonight" pre-show co-host Keltie Knight said as she awkwardly tried to flag down Lizzo, the night’s most-nominated artist, who was skipping pre-show TV interviews in light of the news. As the awards were about to properly kick-off, Knight added, “Diplo said it best earlier, ‘This is what helps us in times like this.” The vibes were truly bleak, and it felt like most of the artists in attendance would have preferred to stay home.
Given the fact that the show was held at the Staples Center, where Bryant played 20 seasons and won five championships with the LA Lakers, the loss was palpable—and it stung even more because officials directed mourners away from the stadium so as not to hinder Grammys traffic. But like the 2012 awards, which happened 24 hours after Whitney Houston died, the show must go on. And it did, sometimes mercilessly and sometimes transcendently. Emotions ran high, especially during select performances, including Lizzo’s opening set, a medley of “Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts,” which she proclaimed was for Kobe, and Ariana Grande’s stellar “7 Rings” rendition, in which the singer appeared on the verge of breaking down. Demi Lovato got choked up during her performance of "Anyone," a song she wrote just before her 2018 overdose, and had to stop and collect herself before she could finish.
The tribute to Nipsey Hussle, the beloved Los Angeles rapper who was fatally shot last March, offered another heartrending moment. Meek Mill, John Legend, DJ Khaled, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch, and YG offered a fitting tribute to the late LA artist that was reminiscent of Diddy's 1997 tribute to Biggie Smalls. Nipsey also won posthumous awards for Best Rap Performance with “Racks In The Middle,” featuring Roddy Ricch and Hit-Boy, as well as the Best Rap/Sung Performance nod for "Higher," the Nipsey and John Legend-assisted DJ Khaled track. As Hussle’s family congregated around Khaled as he was awarded the Grammy for “Higher,” it was a reminder that Los Angeles lost two galvanizing, essential figures in the last year. Grief was on full display at the Staples Center.
Meanwhile, the evening's tribute to Prince felt out of place. The Grammys honored Prince in 2017 with a Bruno Mars-led tribute, and so it felt random to pay homage to the late icon four years after his death. Even worse, FKA twigs, who joined Prince’s drummer Sheila E. and a mostly competent Usher onstage didn’t sing a single note and was relegated to the role of a backup dancer. The Recording Academy released a boneheaded statement saying it was twigs’ choice to not sing, a claim quickly refuted by the artist herself. For an institution plagued by allegations of sexism and notoriously shutting out women of color, to deny twigs’ the opportunity to sing and claim otherwise is indefensible—especially considering the scandals it's currently embroiled in.
In spite of moments of real, raw emotion, it almost feels like it doesn't matter who won. Billie Eilish’s sweep of the four major categories feels like a coup, but her shock underscored the fact that Lil Nas X and his cultural phenomenon “Old Town Road” deserved at least one major nod. For an organization that’s smart enough to recognize Daniel Johnston but beguilingly not David Berman in its “In Memoriam” segment, the Grammys have a long way to go to work out its issues.
The Grammys were marred by the death of Bryant, Hussle, and the already-flimsy confidence in the institution that has been rattled by Dugan’s allegations. Despite any goodhearted attempts to honor a bonafide legend like John Prine, the awards felt hollow. The Recording Academy inherently values commercial success and popularity over artistic merit and diversity. It's just business as usual. But this year, music's biggest night was a stark reminder that there are a lot of things bigger than this.